The Shadow of the Bomber

Uri Bialer. The Shadow of the Bomber: The Fear of Air Attack and British Politics, 1932-1939. London: Royal Historical Society, 1980.

A brief book but an important one: as far as I am aware, it is the only one to specifically focus on the fear of air attack, as opposed to air policy generally. Bialer 'aims to focus on the fear itself, and to discover the extent to which it was shared by those responsible for shaping national policy'. He finds that 'there can be no doubt that the spectre of air attack had a material influence on the making of both defence and foreign policy'. Bialer stresses throughout that ministers and officials were very much aware of, and indeed largely shared the public fear of air attack. Government departments were generally agreed that there was an aerial threat, but differed in their response: for example, the Air Ministry believed in a strong deterrent force, while the Foreign Office at first wanted multilateral disarmament but failing that, RAF rearmament. Similarly, both pacifists and militarists used the same apocalyptic visions of London's destruction by air to make their points. Both sides could claim some support -- the National Peace Ballot produced 10 million votes out of 12 for the abolition of air forces, whereas 44 out of 62 British newspapers favoured a one-power standard in the air.

After the progressive failure of the world Disarmament Conference in Geneva in 1932-4 (in part because worries over the possible conversion of civil aircraft to military uses could not be assuaged -- which, it was thought, made the limitation of air forces rather pointless), much effort was put into obtaining an air pact with France and Germany and others. This would legitimise German air rearmament but hopefully satisfy it and limit its future expansion. But as Germany was mostly dissembling -- as events showed, it did not value such legitimation very highly - and France was more interested in British security guarantees; no agreement could be reached. The remaining diplomatic option was an international agreement to codify air war to prevent attacks outside the immediate area of battle. From Britain's point of view, the perceived vulnerability of London to air attack meant it was desirable to get the most stringent limitations possible. Critics of an air convention believed that precisely because London was so vulnerable, no enemy would restrict themselves in war. Despite recognising the force of such arguments, the British government continued to search for an agreement right up until 1939. From late 1937, the bombing of cities in the Spanish Civil War and then the developing Czech crisis gave added impetus to those seeking such an agreement. This was so even as it became more and more evident that Germany was uninterested in any such agreement.

Bialer says that the period after 1935 marks the point when the military (as opposed to the politicians) finally accepted that a devastating knock-out blow was possible, and that Germany would likely try to achieve it in a future war. By the start of 1937, the Committee of Imperial Defence's line was clear: a knockout blow from Germany was to be expected in any future war. All this along with the pre-existing terror of ministers with regards to air attack meant that the RAF was given priority over the Army's needs; and even the Army was to spend more on anti-aircraft guns than on the Expeditionary Force for use on the Continent. By the Munich crisis, all the years of warnings from the Foreign Office, the Air Ministry and others had produced a mindset which constrained foreign policy, when combined with Germany's apparently overwhelming superiority in the air. Hence appeasement.

As Bialer concludes, the British preoccupation with air attack went 'beyond the bounds of rational reflections'.

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7 thoughts on “The Shadow of the Bomber

  1. Chris Williams

    Hi Brett. You need to add _The Aerodrome_ by Rex Warner to your fiction list. I think that Wells' _Land Ironclads_ belongs there too. You really need to add _The Paladins_ by John James (not the best history book ever written, but pretty close), _Trenchard_ by Andrew Boyle, and _Sir Frederick Sykes_ by Eric Ash* to your non-fiction list. Neville Shute's autobiography _Slide Rule_ is interesting, too. You might want to add Peter Fearon's work on the British aircraft industry to to it as well, and John Buckley's _Air Power in the Age of Total War_.

    Primary sources: Ashmore's _Air Defence_ (1929) is good on this. When you get to Blighty, there's an interesting 1938 pamphlet on air raid precautions in Sheffield local studies library which was produced by the Sheffield branch of the CPGB.

    *Ash claims originality but is in fact re-hashing one of the sub-themes of James' incomparably better book.

    Good luck, mate!

  2. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks! Good call on The Paladins and Buckley's book; and thanks for the pointers on the biographies, I haven't delved into that side of things yet.

    Not sure what to make of The Aerodrome, it's not a primary source for me as it was published during the war ... I'll have to read it first. I know Edgerton likes it a lot.

    The CPGB pamphlet sounds interesting! Would it be the one pictured at the NBCD ARP site, on the far right?

  3. Chris Williams

    Yes, that's the Sheffield one I was talking about, so far as I can remember it. By the way, that NBCD site says that Haldane was an MP: he wasn't.

  4. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Yeah, I noticed that too, and was about to email him about it (maybe he's thinking of uncle Richard). It's a great site otherwise, though.

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  6. Post author

    Arthur, sorry for the belated response but you're conflating two books on related topics.

    One is my book, called "The Next War in the Air: Britain's Fear of the Bomber, 1908-1941". You can buy it from Routledge here (but it's not cheap!)

    The other is by Uri Bialer and is called "The Shadow of the Bomber: The Fear of Air Attack and British Politics, 1932-1939". It's long out of print so you'll need to look for it in secondhand booksellers.

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